August 1, 2009

Saudi Smack Down

After chatter on Israel, settlements, and President Obama reached ridiculous proportions, Saudi Arabia exploded and vaporized the clamor. Obama had dragged its personal road map, the Arab Peace Initiative, through the dirt of politics for too long. He's in danger now that the Kingdom struck back.

Obama had sent revisions of the Initiative to the Arab League after taking office, including an attempt to weaken the refugee “right of return” clause. Obama is obsessed with artificially speeding up the peace process, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed when she blurted, “We feel like we’re making headway and we are determined to do so in as short a period of time as possible.”

Ignoring the perils of this strategy, Obama sent letters earlier this month to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and friendly Arab states encouraging them to normalize relations. According to Clinton, Obama wants, “the Arab states, including our friends in Saudi Arabia, to work with us to take steps to improve relations with Israel, to support the Palestinian Authority and to prepare their people to embrace the eventual peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

But appeasing Israel at the expense of the Palestinians runs contrary to the Arab Peace Initiative and the Saudi government naturally took offense. The Kingdom was ready to attack by the time a second round of letters came. On the same day that Clinton and Prince al-Faisal met at the White House, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry dug in and defended its vision.

"The Arab Peace Initiative is very clear,” Saudi foreign ministry spokesman Osama Nugali told the AFP, “Israel should withdraw from the Arab lands and put an end to its occupation and resolve the major issues of the conflict. It is Israel that has to move seriously towards the peace process.”

After meeting with Clinton, Prince al-Faisal declared that his government would not consider improving relations with Israel until it agrees to withdraw from all Palestinian territories. Nugali echoed, “Riyadh will not recognize Israel until after its withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories and its acceptance of the two-state principle. In the Arab peace process normalization comes after achieving these goals, not before it. So we should not put the cart before the horse.”

Prince Saud al-Faisal brushed aside Clinton’s friendly PR to warn that Israel is endangering the peace process.

“The question really is: 'What will Israel give in exchange for this comprehensive settlement offer'?” al-Faisal asked. “Israel hasn't even responded to an American request to halt settlements, which President Obama described as illegitimate.”

Prince Saud's implication is that if Obama can’t persuade Israel on the first and easiest final status issue, he has no chance with refugees, Jerusalem, and the definition of a Jewish state. The odds of a two-state solution will drop to a new low if he loses the confidence of Saudi Arabia. Egypt is a key broker between Palestinian factions and Israel, but Saudi Arabia is the bellwether of the Arab world and it’s skeptical foot has come down on Obama's plan.

Obama is attempting to rearrange the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative to Israel’s liking, but false pressure on settlements won't easily fool Saudi Arabia or Palestinian militants. Instead of respecting the limits of the process, he’s overestimated his own plan while underestimating the Arab and Israeli response. When he got stuck he tried to take a short cut, but Saudi Arabia came down hard and blocked his path.

President Obama must now find another way to peace in this endless maze. His advisers seem to encourage full speed, but the faster he goes the more fatal the crash. America fails to understand this threat. Soon after Prince Saud made his remarks, 200 US Congressmen fired off yet another letter to King Abdullah that read, "We have been disappointed thus far to see the public reaction of your government to President Obama's request."

Since every other plot failed, shaming the King will surely succeed - in another dimension maybe.

A two-state solution will take longer than four years and likely longer than eight, but America lacks the patience as usual. The Palestinian position must be respected, not declawed; losing Saudi support would be a devastating blow to Obama's diplomacy. Pressuring moderate Arab states to accept Israel's terms is reckless and unrealistic. President Obama should focus on steadily improving the situation, not rescuing it in one swoop.

Rushing the process is doomed to fail and Saudi Arabia is trying to warn him. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly 100 years old - it may take as long to resolve.

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